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Race and Crime

Bio-psychological Theory

Several theoretical approaches justify the disproportionality hypothesis. Early research adopted an individualistic approach that focused on the biological and psychological differences of criminals and became known as biological positivism. Researchers believed criminals to be physically different from noncriminals, and considered criminals to be atavistic throwbacks that could be identified by certain biological features or physical stigmata. Many of these early biological studies singled out certain races as having more criminalistic features than others, and biological explanations of disproportionate involvement of certain races in crime were born. Many of the early biological studies have been written off as little more than pseudo-science; however, individualistic studies emphasizing biological and psychological differences between offenders and noncriminals have not disappeared. In 1939, E. A. Hooten, a Harvard anthropologist, stated that "criminals are organically inferior," and went on to propose that "the elimination of crime can be effected only by the extirpation of the physically, mentally, and morally unfit; or by their complete segregation in a social aseptic environment" (quoted in Vold and Bernard, p. 6). This belief that the causes of crime lie inside individuals has endured decades of criticism.

Biological and psychological positivism experienced somewhat of a revival in the 1970s, as a number of researchers began to look into biological and psychological factors associated with criminality. Biological and psychological factors, such as brain disorders, hormonal problems, biochemical effects, nerve disorders, chromosomal abnormalities, and intelligence deficiencies, have all been linked to criminal behavior. One of the most controversial biological/psychological positivistic perspectives is presented in The Bell Curve (1994) by Richard Hernstein and Charles Murray. Hernstein and Murray argue that Intelligence Quotient (IQ) determines success in life and that people with lower IQs are more likely to receive welfare, be unemployed, and commit crime. The authors argue that African Americans score lower on IQ tests than whites, that IQ is genetically determined and does not change throughout the life course, and that lower intelligence results in increased criminal offending. Critics argue that there is no such objective entity as "intelligence" and that IQ tests are culturally biased. Hernstein and Murray and their work have been largely discredited by the scientific community, but their approach to explaining the disproportionate criminal offending of particular races proved popular and has some advocates.

Biological and psychological studies have played an important role in shaping what is known about crime. However, their popularity has been more due to their controversial ideological nature that their scientific merit. Their treatment of complex behaviors as scientific byproducts of biological or psychological differences in persons is overly simplistic and woefully inadequate. Crime is a normative concept, and biological explanations tend to ignore the fact that what is deemed "criminal" in one place might be considered noble elsewhere. Despite the shortcomings of this vein of research, it has found a place in the disciplines of sociology, anthropology, and criminology, and remains as one approach to explain differential patterns of offending across racial categories.

Additional topics

Law Library - American Law and Legal InformationCrime and Criminal LawRace and Crime - Data Sources And Meaning, The Nature And Direction Of The Race And Crime Relationship, Bio-psychological Theory - Conclusion